Do You Want People to Choose Your Social Media Content?

–Then think “speed dating.”

In her June 15 Neuro-Nugget, “The Persuasive Power of Social Proof,” the ever thought-provoking, Melissa Hughes Ph.D. included these two images with the question: “Which restaurant would you choose?”

The conclusion was that people might be more likely to venture into the restaurant with all the people sitting in front because they were unconsciously operating under the concept of “social proof”:  the food and service must be good in the restaurant on the left because more people are sitting in front of it than the restaurant on the right.

Social proof is one of the brain’s filters, and it likely influences us all the time on social media. Given the dizzying array of choices, we gravitate to certain articles, podcast episodes, and videos and not others, thinking, “If other people reacted or left a comment, that content must be valuable. Right?” But what else, I wondered, could influence decisions of choice?

Obviously, our association with a certain content provider could be a big factor. If I see it, read anything that Melissa produces, but what if I don’t know the content provider? Besides the provider’s name, what is it that we first see? I was curious about the impact that headlines and images could have on our social media decision-making. In Melissa’s piece, the word “proof” caught my eye, as did the two images (especially where they appeared in the LinkedIn version). Why two images? I was curious to know what Melissa was driving at before I read a single word.

The implication here is critical for content providers of articles, videos, or audio podcasts. We create because we want to have an impact and be seen as relevant. But if our headline and or image doesn’t get beyond the brain’s first impression bias filter, our content is doomed no matter how good it is. We know that first impression bias is real, given that research shows a hiring manager will make a decision on a candidate after spending as little as 7 seconds reviewing their resume. If the candidate makes it to the interview, many hiring managers will have made their decision in as few as 5 minutes.

Because of the volume of information it has to process, the brain looks for ways to make our lives more efficient, relying on heuristics — basically shortcuts — to help us make decisions.

So, regarding social media, if the headline and image don’t immediately counteract what our brain associates with the topic of obituaries, for example — death — our brain will likely screen out what might otherwise be a worthy piece of content. Similarly, if we’re fanatical about any content dealing with leadership, a headline that speaks to the novel association of screenwriting with leadership might grab our attention.

The implication here is that content providers need to be as much or more concerned about how they pitch their content as they are about creating the content in the first place. The good news is that there’s a lot of direction on how to do that, only a Google search away, especially for generating good headlines. I’ll include links at the end of this piece for your reference, but here are some of the headline pointers I repeatedly read about:

  • Pose questions (which can be answered in the content)
  • Cultivate curiosity (include novel information or take a novel approach)
  • Provide useful information (include a numbered list; speak to “How to” do something, or solve a nagging problem)
  • Use “you” or “your” (personalize it; speak to the content recipient)
  • Include negative language (Stop! Don’t! Avoid!)
  • Use emotionally charged words (make people care)

As a subjective test, I wanted to see if any of these pointers were evident in the headlines I wrote to promote what became my most successful podcast episodes in terms of downloads. And I wanted to be cognizant of isolating the episode title as a variable as much as possible in terms of what could be driving those downloads.

  • As reported in Medium, “Today, people have an attention span of fewer than nine seconds, … As a result, images are more important than ever, especially on social media.” It’s important to note that I use my guest’s image for the podcast visual in my promotion. The photo has a functional purpose rather than an attention-grabbing one. Thus, I doubt that these images are a big factor in driving episode downloads.
  • My guests have respected credentials, but most are not what you would call “household names.” Given that, potential listeners are probably not downloading the episode based on who sits across from me at the mic unless they know the guest or are connected to them.
  • I often include a guest’s quote from the episode in my promotions — the pithier, the better. These are intended to garner attention and reinforce the podcast’s title. Could they impact downloads?
  • One factor that I can’t eliminate as an influencer of downloads is sharing. Many of my guests historically share the episode in their network, and a few of my connections routinely do. Those shares will undoubtedly impact downloads.

So, imperfect as this test is, what did I find? Here are a few of my top episodes from the more than 250 episodes I’ve produced over the past five years. Following the title are the characteristic(s) that could have influenced downloads.

  • Learning About Life and Leadership from a Fly Fishing Guide (taking a novel approach)
  • Using Visible Learning to Improve Student Success (providing a “How to…” and including an emotional appeal as in “student success”)
  • Being Curious Enough to Avoid a Big Regret (calling out curiosity, and using negative language)
  • Give Your Imposter Syndrome a Time Out (using “your,” and using novel language as in associating the Imposter Syndrome with “time out”)
  • Connecting to Overcome Challenges (Using an emotional appeal as in “connecting,” and “How to…”

Not all of my episodes perform the same — oy, trust me — and there are at least three other factors that impact downloads in addition to the ones I mentioned above.

  • Competition:  Garnering ear-time is a battle as there are now more than 3 million podcasts. Not to mention articles, books, and videos, which are all competing for someone’s time.
  • Time of year: From my experience, people are more apt to listen in cooler months than in the summer. Vacation anyone?
  • The length of an episode: Shorter episodes – around 30 minutes – generally do better because people are reluctant to commit much time unless the host or guest is a big name. My episodes tend to consistently run about 45 minutes in length, so I ruled that out as a factor that could impact downloads of one of my episodes versus another. Performance relative to other podcasts? Certainly a factor.

The bottom line? Given our human tendency to make lightning-fast decisions regarding social media options, content providers would be wise to focus intently on the language they use in headlines and the images they select to say to would-be content users, “Hey, look at me!” If you want to be relevant and have an impact, you must pass that first impression “Go!” filter before you collect $200.



Jeff Ikler
Jeff Ikler
The river that runs through my career lives – as teacher, publisher, coach, podcaster and author – is helping individuals acquire knowledge, skills, and self-awareness so they can better achieve their desired results and impact. • As Director of Quetico Leadership and Career Coaching, I work with individuals and leaders to overcome obstacles and make sustained changes in their behavior. • I co-host the podcast “Getting Unstuck – Shift for Impact,” where I bring to light inspirational stories of transformation in the field of education. • I am the co-author of the soon-to-be-published book for school educators, Shifting: How Educational Leaders Can Create a Culture of Change.

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